Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Francis Mercer (1759-1821)
MSA SC 3520-904

Governor of Maryland, 1801-1803

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of
Records Commission, 1970), 47-49.

"JOHN FRANCIS MERCER was born at 'Marlborough,' Stafford County, Virginia, on May 17, 1759, the son of John and Ann (Roy) Mercer. He was the grandson of John and Grace (Fenton) Mercer, who had emigrated to Virginia in 1720. Following his graduation from William and Mary College in 1775, he prepared to practice law. The outbreak of the Revolution, however, interfered with his plans. On February 26, 1776, he was commissioned First Lieutenant in Capt. William Washington’s company of the Third Virginia Regiment. In November of the same year, he was appointed 'Captain to the General’s guard.'1 He took part in the battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, when he was slightly wounded. In the same month, he was promoted to captain, his commission dating from June 27 of that year. In March of 1778, he became aide-de-camp to Charles Lee, with the rank of Major.

"Under Lee he fought at the battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. When Lee willfully disobeyed the orders of Washington and by his conduct left the commander-in-chief no alternative but to have him court-martialed, Mercer determined to leave the army. Despite General Lee’s disgrace, Mercer supported him. He then quit the army in the fall of 1779 to study law in Williamsburg under the direction and auspices of Thomas Jefferson.

"Mercer, however, did not remain with his books very long. In the fall of 1780, when the British invaded Virginia, he was commissioned lieutenant-colonel in General Robert Lawson’s corps, but the corps disbanded shortly. He then commenced the practice of law in Fredericksburg, Va., and lived there until May of 1781, when he raised a troop of cavalry for further service. At that time, he joined Lafayette, as colonel of his regiment participating with it until the termination of hostilities.

"In 1782, Mercer was elected a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress to replace Edmund Randolph, who had resigned. He served in that body until 1785, at which time, he moved from Virginia to Maryland. On February 3, 1785, he married Sophia Sprigg, the daughter of Richard and Margaret Sprigg, following which he took up residence [p. 48] at 'Cedar Park' on West River, the estate inherited by his wife from her father. Here he made his home for the remainder of his life.

"Mercer, in less than two years, became active in Maryland politics. In 1787, he was elected one of the delegates to the Federal Constitutional Convention. Mercer, as the youngest member of Maryland’s delegation, 'had opposed allowing the people to participate in the election of members to the national legislature,' so he opposed the new Constitution.2 Philip Crowl minimizes Mercer’s role in the Convention. By early August, Mercer 'had decided that the plan, as thus far prepared, was no good. He left the Convention some time in the same month and returned to Maryland to join Luther Martin in his opposition to ratification of the Constitution.'3

"After his return home, Mercer was elected to represent Anne Arundel County in the Maryland Convention which ratified the Constitution. Once again, he bitterly opposed the adoption of the document, this time because of his advocacy of cheap paper money. Because of his Anti-Federalist beliefs, he again refused to indicate his support for the Constitution.

"In 1788 and 1789, as Anne Arundel County was a stronghold of Anti-Federalist sentiment, Mercer was elected to a seat in the House of Delegates. He was again reelected in 1791 and 1792, resigning to fill William Pinkney’s unexpired term in the House of Representatives. He served in that body between February 1792 and April 1794, when he resigned and retired to 'Cedar Park.'

"Mercer did not hold any public office between 1794 and 1800. In that year, he was again elected to represent Anne Arundel County in the House of Delegates. He was re-elected, but very shortly thereafter, he resigned because of his election as governor on November 9, 1801.

"Defeating James Murray, John Francis Mercer assumed the governorship following an overwhelming Republican reaction to the Federalists. Re-elected in 1802 again defeating James Murray, his two-year administration witnessed the abolition of the property qualification for voting and the adoption of the secret ballot. The first of several Virginians to be elected Governor of Maryland, he served only two terms since he was unable to satisfy completely the clamor for reform. Even though he did not do so, Maryland, because of the Mercer administration, took giant strides toward the elimination of aristocratic control. All this from one who but a decade previously had opposed the extension of Democratic principles in the fight over the adoption of the Constitution.

"Governor Mercer was succeeded in 1803 by Robert Bowie, another Republican. In the same year, Mercer for the third time was elected to represent Anne Arundel County in the House of Delegates. His three-year membership seems to have resulted in only one major accomplishment, his selection to serve on an important committee to determine the western boundary of the State. After his term had expired in 1806, he again returned to his estate 'Cedar Park.' Shortly before the War of 1812, [p. 49] he broke with the Republicans and became a Federalist, in an attempt to avert a war with England. During the last several years of his life, he lived at 'Cedar Park,' where he continued to reside 'in the midst of his affectionate family, in elegant hospitality to his friends, in the full enjoyment of his taste for classical literature, in the active dispensation of judicious charities and kindness to those of his neighbours who wanted assistance and relief, and in increasing and securing the respect and love of all who knew him.'4

"In 1821, because of ill health, he went to Philadelphia to consult with his doctor. There he died on August 30 of that year. He was temporarily buried in a vault at St. Peter’s Church in that city. His remains were later removed to 'Cedar Park' and buried in the graveyard at the foot of the garden in that place.5 He left an estate valued at $16,978.75, including seventy-three Negroes."6

Notes on sources

The following essay is taken from the National Archives and Records Administration's web pages on "The Founding Fathers:  Delegates to the Constitutional Convention."  See links:

"John Francis Mercer, born on May 17, 1759, was the fifth of nine children born to John and Ann Mercer of Stafford County, VA. He attended the College of William and Mary, and in early 1776 he joined the 3d Virginia Regiment. Mercer became Gen. Charles Lee's aide-decamp in 1778, but after General Lee's court-martial in October 1779, Mercer resigned his commission. He spent the next year studying law at the College of William and Mary and then rejoined the army, where he served briefly under Lafayette.

"In 1782 Mercer was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. That December he became one of Virginia's representatives to the Continental Congress. He later returned to the House of Delegates in 1785 and 1786.

"Mercer married Sophia Sprigg in 1785 and soon after moved to Anne Arundel County, MD. He attended the Constitutional Convention as part of Maryland's
delegation when he was only 28 years old, the second youngest delegate in Philadelphia. Mercer was strongly opposed to centralization, and both spoke and voted
against the Constitution. He and fellow Marylander Luther Martin left the proceedings before they ended.

"After the convention, Mercer continued in public service. He allied himself with the Republicans and served in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1778-89,
1791-92, 1800-1801, and 1803-6. Between 1791 and 1794 he also sat in the U.S. House of Representatives for Maryland and was chosen governor of the state
for two terms, 1801-3. During Thomas Jefferson's term as President, Mercer broke with the Republicans and joined the Federalist camp.

"Illness plagued him during his last years. In 1821 Mercer traveled to Philadelphia to seek medical attention, and he died there on August 30. His remains lay
temporarily in a vault in St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia and were reinterred on his estate, 'Cedar Park' in Maryland."

Return to John Francis Mercer's introductory page